Iowa State freshman forward Xavier Foster dunks the ball in the first half against Kansas State on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
Blake Hinson’s eyes light up, and a smile spreads across his face after hearing the question from a reporter.
It is the type of smile that makes you think he knows something that we don’t.
It is the type of smile that leads you to believe Iowa State’s freshman point guard Tyrese Hunter has lived up to expectations during the program’s opening workouts of its first summer program under new head coach T.J. Otzelberger.
“Young killer,” Hinson said of the former four-star recruit from Racine, Wis. “He got a lot to learn. He’s got a lot to learn, but, man, he has a lot of potential, and he’s ready to go, man.”
That is refreshing to hear about the 6-foot-1 floor general who, along with redshirt center Xavier Foster, leads the nucleus of this program’s future.
The No. 35 player in the 2021 recruiting class is someone capable of creating excitement for a program that went winless in Big 12 play last season.
His athleticism is elite, best showcased by the series of bring-the-house-down slam dunks he displayed during the Iverson Showcase event this past spring. His teammates note his desire to defend at an elite level, focused on stopping an opposing team’s best guard. His coach points to his dynamic playmaking ability as something that sets him apart.
All of these things come together to create a player worth getting excited about.
On a team full of fresh faces, Hunter, and his potential for immediate success, will be what defines the trajectory of this program during Otzelberger’s first year at the helm.
If Hunter performs to expectations as a freshman, Iowa State’s status as a Big 12 bottom-dweller could be short-lived, with further highly-regarded reinforcements coming in the 2022 recruiting class.
Right or wrong, Hunter and Foster are the guys with the best chance to breathe life back into this program that more or less lost all the momentum it gained during its golden era of the 2010s, which featured four Big 12 Tournament titles, seven NCAA Tournament berths and two Sweet 16 appearances.
“Tyrese is a highly competitive winner,” Otzelberger said. “He comes every day with a look in his eye that he wants to get better. He wants to be told the truth when he’s being coached. He doesn’t want it sugarcoated. He really cares about improving. Up to this point, he’s been somebody that is a dynamic playmaker. His spirit infects our team. He’s a tremendous on-ball defender. He’s still a freshman, and we’ve got a lot to work on, but really pleased with the early start that he’s gotten off to here for our program.”
We’ve seen flashes of the talent that makes Foster such a tantalizing figure for Iowa State basketball fans, starting during his high school career at Oskaloosa then continuing in spurts during the seven games he played in his true freshman season before a foot injury ended it.
He’s a seven-footer with the raw tools needed to be the type of rim protector you expect a seven-footer to be. He’s athletic, running in the open floor and maneuvering around the basket.
But, what has always made Foster different is his ability to stretch the floor as a jump shooter. That is the thing that has prompted Hinson to grant him a nickname, too.
“Man, I call him the unicorn,” Hinson said. “He’s something you’ve probably never seen before out here. Being so young, he has a lot to learn, but his raw talent is unbelievable.”
Tyrese Hunter and Xavier Foster, the young killer and the unicorn.
The duo’s development during their first full collegiate season together will be one of the defining pieces of Otzelberger’s tenure’s start. They are both the present and the future of this program’s rebirth and hopeful return to national prominence.
That’s why I was struck by Hinson’s smile last week. It seems like he knows something the rest of us don’t, but we’re all ready to find out.
“(Hunter’s) ready to go,” Hinson said. “I hope the best for him, but he’s really good. He’s really good. That’s all I can really say now.”